Liverpool still lacking infastructure to be great again
Brendan Rodgers is the latest manager to fail to emulate the Anfield club’s glorious past
Work being carried out to increase the capacity of Anfield. Photograph: Getty Images
It is of course never a sign of good health for a club to be sacking a manager, especially when the leaves on the autumn trees are barely brown at the edges, and Fenway Sports Group’s early dispatch of Brendan Rodgers from Liverpool denotes a club beset by a strange muddle of contradictions. These range right up the great grumbling club, from the uncertain transfer activity, the abrupt change of heart over Rodgers’ tenure, even in that huge roof truss erected with such ceremony in the summer, and up to the remote regime of FSG itself.
The broader context for all the turmoil is Liverpool’s identity crisis in the Premier League era, with a huge family of fans pining for the dynastic dominance that preceded it, but the club eclipsed financially, first by Manchester United’s commercialisation, then the oligarch and sheikh injections at Chelsea and Manchester City, and Arsenal’s London property boom.
The roof truss, pre-announced, feverishly photographed and filmed, became football’s most fussed-over set of girders because it signals John Henry’s Boston-based owners finally moving to bridge the financial gap by adding 8,500 seats to the main stand, followed by a similar expansion at the Anfield Road end, having scrapped the rusting plans for a new stadium.
The expansion, based on earning millions from 4,000 expensive corporate packages, itself frames a tension at the heart of Liverpool, whose main supporters group is a pre-eminent campaigner for affordable ticket prices and staged a joint demonstration with Everton fans before Sunday’s derby, the 1-1 draw that finalised the end of Rodgers. The fan group’s name, Spirit of Shankly, encapsulates Anfield’s yearning to see great feats again, and how Rodgers and the next incumbent, whether FSG can land Jürgen Klopp, Carlo Ancelotti or end up with a lesser choice, will always be measured against the legendary folk hero who built the modern club.
Running Liverpool is a balancing act of awkward compromises Shankly’s authentic belief in the socialist essence of a club is not, it is fair to say, shared by the investment fund chiefs of FSG or Liverpool’s chief executive, Ian Ayre, but their aim is to pacify the activists by at least delivering success, through making plenty of money from prices which make fans’ pips squeak, and a wealthier body of subscribers.
In the meantime, running Liverpool is a balancing act of awkward compromises which FSG, based in Boston and busy with baseball, Henry’s true sporting obsession, have always struggled to manage. Liverpool’s most recent financial figures, from 2013-14, show the club made £256m in income the year of Rodgers’ second place near-Premier League title season, spearheaded by Luis Suárez and Steven Gerrard, but that was still only the fifth-highest in the league. That signifies exactly where they do not want to be, even in their best season for years; financially outside the top four, almost £100m behind City and £200m behind United.
That makes qualification for the Champions League difficult in the absence of such exceptional talents, and makes it more likely that those star players with futures ahead of them will opt to leave Anfield for clubs in that stratum. Already it feels like deceptively long ago that Suárez was in a Liverpool shirt sinking his teeth into opposition defences, and Raheem Sterling’s exit for City was another reminder of Liverpool’s current status, even if FSG did wring out an improbable £49m for him.
Negotiating this position in the wild west of the transfer market is tricky, with Liverpool having a lot of money to spend but not the crazy wads waved by United, City and Chelsea, to whom they are vulnerable to losing their best players. FSG came with a reputation as adherents of baseball’s “Moneyball” art of finding good value recruits through forensic research, due to their ownership of the Boston Red Sox team and Henry’s early talk that he had read and admired Michael Lewis’s book.
Their actual practice in the transfer market has largely not borne this out, beginning weeks after they took over with the splash of £35m on Andy Carroll – although they did bank £50m at the same time from trading a dimmed Fernando Torres to Chelsea. Suárez was a great signing, but he was already an established international striker who cost £22m, and it has proven impossible to replicate such business despite receiving £75m when he went to shine in the stellar line-up at Barcelona.
Rodgers said in his final press conference on Sunday – fittingly, somehow, not at Anfield but at the old Goodison Park home of Liverpool’s rivals – that the club faces “a lengthy rebuilding job.” Yet FSG and the famous “transfer committee,” formed to try to get the balance of recruitment right, did sanction £80m spending on seven new players in the summer. That brought to almost £300m the money Rodgers has had to spend since the American owners selected him, fresh from an admirable period at Swansea City, in the summer of 2012.
With Suárez gone and Daniel Sturridge injured for much of last season Liverpool struggled, and Gerrard’s departure was always going to leave a hole, but FSG reconciled the doubts over Rodgers by giving him more money and letting go his assistants Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh. Feeling they have to fire him weeks into the new season shouts that, on hindsight, the opportunity to really start afresh was botched.
Swansea, curiously, demonstrate some of the old Liverpool virtues hewn first by Shankly which the modern club, bought by US owners principally for the prospect of the Premier League’s financial fortunes, has not managed to recapture. When Rodgers left the Liberty Stadium the club quietly reminded itself that he was only the latest in a line of coaches who had steered them to its startling revival, and maintained that the style of play and recruitment would endure when he had gone.
Liverpool, and their owners from the US who are rarely at Anfield, have not managed to reacquire that old culture of continuity and the next manager, taking over weeks into a new season with £80m of recent recruits he did not choose, will not – unlike Shankly’s successor, Bob Paisley – inherit an ideal starting point. FSG emphasised somewhat unnecessarily when sacking Rodgers that it wants to embody “ambition and winning”, but before the new stands are in place filled by corporate feasters, Liverpool remain a club in transition whose balance is proving difficult to manage competently.